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Electric dreams: diverse energy sources in the UK

The future of the electricity system is at the heart of current debates about energy policy. Despite recent controversies, there remains a widely held view that the UK’s ambitious targets for climate-change mitigation require rapid emissions cuts in the electricity sector. The rationale is that this will make reducing emissions in transport and heating easier to achieve. At the same time, a significant proportion of the UK’s ageing power plant fleet is due to close in the near future due to tighter emissions regulations. These imperatives have provided a strong rationale for reforms to the electricity market to support investment in low-carbon electricity generation – and to match this with a renewed commitment to energy efficiency.

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The main options for electricity-system decarbonisation are now the subject of explicit government strategies and policies. Dedicated offices have been set up within the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) tasked with supporting nuclear power, renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency and unconventional fossil fuels. The compatibility of the development of unconventional gas with the government’s own climate targets is, of course, hotly debated.

In effect, the government is following a diverse approach to the low-carbon transition – an approach that has significant advantages. Diversity is one of a number of strategies that can be used to square the transition to a low-carbon energy system with the need to maintain energy security. Diversity doesn’t guarantee energy security, but it can help to mitigate the impacts of some of the key risks to security, including technical failures, extreme weather events, geopolitical tensions and civil unrest.

It’s unlikely that a future low-carbon electricity system will include every option available

So does this mean that the UK needs to pursue all available technological options to meet our climate-change and other policy goals? Not necessarily. Among those who support the government’s decarbonisation targets, opinions differ about the mix of technologies, fuels and other measures that should be prioritised. The differences of opinion are partly due to technical and economic uncertainties, and partly due to social and political preferences of different advocacy groups.

A recent report comparing modelled scenarios from the UK Energy Research Centre concludes that all scenarios show the importance of energy efficiency and deep cuts in electricity-sector emissions by 2030, but also argues that there is considerable uncertainty about the mix of low-carbon electricity-supply technologies that could be deployed. The DECC’s 2050 Pathways Calculator includes scope for even more variety than UKERC’s scenarios. For example, it’s possible to use the calculator to show how the 2050 decarbonisation target could be met without further nuclear power plants but also possible to use it to construct a low-carbon-energy future that includes a significant expansion of nuclear power.

One reason why it may be difficult to sustain a low-carbon transition in which all options play a significant role is path dependency. Path dependency tends to be a feature of electricity systems – and of other large, complex infrastructures. In his book American Genesis, historian Thomas Hughes shows that this path dependency is not just a technical and economic phenomenon. He argues that electricity systems ‘incorporate not only technical and physical things such as generators, transformers and high-voltage transmission lines, but also utility companies, electrical manufacturers and reinforcing institutions such as regulatory agencies and laws’.

Once this combination of technologies and institutions is established, Hughes argues that they tend to favour particular technological options and particular solutions to problems they encounter. The UK electricity system is a good example of this, having been developed using a centralised model, dominated by large-scale power plants and vertically integrated utilities. There were some good reasons for this, including a desire to realise economies of scale. But this history matters to those trying to implement radical reforms today.

Two lessons are particularly important for contemporary policy. First, it is unlikely that a future low-carbon electricity system in the UK will include every possible option available. Even if the economic climate improves, governments, consumers and businesses will be subject to significant budgetary pressures. Second, there is a need to consider path dependency, especially where there is a need to deploy technologies and measures that have not historically been part of the UK electricity system. These include technologies with unfamiliar characteristics, decentralised generation investments and more radical technologies and business models that bridge the divide between electricity supply and demand.

Professor Watson is research director for the UK Energy Research Centre


Readers' comments (18)

  • I think a Trans European Energy network such as the proposed European Supergrid would solve these issues and indeed much progress is being made towards this agenda.The main barrier as you suggest is politics and there is a definite need for cohesion across all the platforms involved to make this concept a success. The UK really does need to move in line with Europe though regarding renewables, if it wishes to maintain its energy security, in my humble opinion.

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  • The final mix of different energy technologies is far from certain. And there is certainly needs to be a huge transition away from fossil fuels and towards low carbon technologies that needs to occur in order to meet future energy and climate change targets. The real question is how much of the 'new' low carbon energy sector will be left to the market and how much will be determined by Government intervention. The Governments role should be to set the strategic direction and correct market failures allowing the market to decide what technologies will be deployed. However, a quick look back in history shows us that hand picking different technologies has generally proven to be wrong decision and has also tended to be the most expensive option. The Governments role thus should be to correct market failures (where they exist) such as the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, and then step back and let the market decide what technologies are employed, whether that be energy efficiency, wind-farms or nuclear it doesn't matter...

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  • In case no one has noticed, there has been a succession of very cold winters in Europe, the world has not warmed for the past 17 years and, according to the Met office, it will not warm this side of 2018. More and more papers – the latest one in Nature – say that the effect of carbon dioxide on temperature has been much exaggerated. We can now be confident that man-made carbon dioxide does not cause dangerous global warming.

    Therefore, if we lived in a rational world, we would be developing modern coal and gas-fired stations and also nuclear power.

    But, instead of that we squander far more money on subsidising solar and wind power that makes a tiny – and unpredictable – contribution to our energy needs. And now everybody is telling us that serious electricity shortages are likely.

    It is time to look at the evidence, and to develop solutions that will actually do some good at the lowest possible cost.

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  • there are some who still don,t believe what is happening around them the world is warming up ,the ice shelves are melting, ask any Austrialian, and it is a good idea for the European union super grid = a steady supply of power for all and it is cheaper to have a steady supply of power than the stop start we have at present

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  • Bryan, you are very much mistaken. There has been warming in the surface temperature records, though at a reduced rate, the oceans have continued to warm at an alarming rate. The oceans absorb 94% of all the additional heating and this has, in part led to the measured sea level rise. Arctic ice is very much thinner than it was with significant summer melt leading to changes in salinity in the Northern Hemisphere. There are actually very few scientific papers that reject AGW, less than 3% of the last 30+ years.

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  • I must agree with Bryan Leylands comments that the whole energy policy needs to be revised as the whole pack of cards regarding Global Warming has been destroyed. The true cost of the mis-guided pseudo-religion of AGW is beyond sensible understanding.
    The sooner the politicians change their approach the better for the world. The first essential is to scrap the Carbon targets and get back towards a lower cost energy economy.

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  • See remark below for how 'the whole pack of cars regarding Global Warming' is very far from being damaged, let alone destroyed.

  • In my view we must analyze the real cost of wind energy since we are using a resource, the kinetic energy of air, which always determines the climate of each region

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  • Bryan, usually comments like yours are found in the DM or DT.
    A study of over 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subjects of 'global warming' and 'global climate change' published between 1991 and 2011 found that of the papers taking a position on the cause of global warming, over 97% agreed that humans are causing it (Cook 2013).
    Several studies have confirmed that “...the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes”. (Doran 2009). In other words, more than 97% of scientists working in the disciplines contributing to studies of our climate, accept that climate change is almost certainly being caused by human activities.
    Only ill-informed deniers like Bryan prevent action to be taken.

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  • My job, prior to retirement, ensured a highly challenging, indeed it may be said, cynical view of much of what 'specialists' say. The key issue here is not research results, it's job protection.

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  • Why no focus on felting and re tiling existing older roofs?

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